Last month Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy, a locally produced fiction feature that premiered at the SF International, made much of the gentrification, "urban renewal" policies and other factors that over decades have made San Francisco perhaps the U.S. city with the lowest percentage of African American residents. Particularly noted was a massive campaign against "blight" in the 1960s Fillmore District—essentially destroying one of the nation’s historic centers of black life, culture, art, and economic growth.
This month, the SF Black Film Festival is doing its bit to right that wrong, using for the first time as a primary venue the newly Sundance-owned and remodeled Sundance Cinemas right there at the old neighborhood’s Fillmore and Geary center. It’s a landmark year for SFBFF in other ways as well, as 2008 marks its 10th anniversary with the most expansive program yet. Flagging the theme "10 Years, 10 Days, 100 Films," the fest encompasses two long weekends (June 4-8 and 11-15) as well as several other event locales, including Yoshi’s and the Rasselas Jazz Club on Fillmore itself, plus the African-American Arts and Culture Complex on Fulton and the Museum of the African Diaspora downtown.
One hundred movies, more or less—that’s a bit more than we’ve got space to cover here. So a few highlights will have to suffice. A festival can go at least a couple routes in choosing its opening night flick: Feel-good crowd pleaser or something more challenging that will stir discussion and divide opinions. In the end, director Ngozi Onwurah and scenarist Sharon Foster British feature Shoot the Messenger will strike some as all of the above—but its button-pushing nature might leave others ticked off, even outraged.
The terrific David Oyelowo stars as Joe, English son of African parents who is inspired to leave his lucrative computer-tech job and take a low-paying new one as teacher, hoping to raise up at-risk black teens. His tough-love approach isn’t appreciated by all, however, and one disgruntled student’s false accusation of physical abuse fans into a scandal that leaves Joe a public pariah. Cracking under the pressure, he irrationally decides "Every bad thing that’s ever happened to me has involved a black person," turning into a radioactive locus of internalized (and externalized) racism—even as he becomes institutionalized and homeless within a white-dominant society.
Ultimately, Shoot offers redemption that’s genuinely touching. But to the end it still retains its barbed semi-satirical edges, with the "saved" protagonist (who frequently addresses the camera) telling us "I’m not taking back everything I said—so shoot me." Like such classics as Network or "Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Assss Song," this bracing exercise goes way over the top to highlight some discomfiting real-world issues.
Writer-director Dennis Dortch’s debut feature A Good Day to Be Black & Sexy is misleadingly named—it’s an episodic affair in which various heterosexual couples discover they’re not on the harmonious same-page at all, sexually or otherwise. Protagonists range from two college students (one of whom doesn’t quite grok the concept of "reciprocation"—and no, it’s not) the guy) to a woman fed up with her married lover’s inattention, and a playa whose indifference toward his underage squeeze’s birthday earns serious payback from her protective girlfriends.
The hilarious final segment finds an overachieving Chinese American daughter playing Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with her uptight parents discover she’s got a homey of a beau. Ranging widely in smartly-tuned tone, this package of impressionistic slice-of-life miniatures got a mixed response at Sundance earlier this year. But it is well worth your time.
Other narrative features of note include Andrew P. Jones’ Kings of the Evening starring excessively goodlooking model/actor Tyson Beckford as one among several down-on-their-luck types scraping by in Depression Era Texas. It’s earnest, post-datedly P.C., and a bit TV-movie pat. But it does nicely captures the period’s everyday hardship, while giving meaty roles to such veteran talents as Glynn Turman and Lynn Whitfield.
There’s also CSI’s Gary Dourdan as George Jackson in Samm Styles’ Black August. Locally produced dramas include Baayan Bakari’s coming-of-age tale Equinox: The Movement and Leon Lozano’s Something Is Killing Tate, whose titular figure gradually reveals the causes of his suicidal depression. On the international front, SFBFF is showing all four episodes back-to-back of the miniseries After Nine, South Africa’s more mildly spicy take on the polysexual soap operatics of Queer as Folk and The L Word.
Documentaries are plentiful at SF Black Fest. This year they encompass portraits of artists (Music Is My Life, Politics My Mistress: The Story of Oscar Brown, This is the Life about a formative L.A. music scene), controversial role models (Adjust Your Color: The Truth of Petey Greene, SFBFF closer Tribute: Stanley Tookie Williams 1953-2005), crises in progress (Miss HIV), historical lessons (Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans) and show biz itself (Angels Can’t Help But Laugh, interviewing prominent African American actresses). There’s also a retrospective salute to recently deceased documentarian St. Clair Bourne, who made films about Paul Robeson, Gordon Parks, Spike Lee and many others.
Don’t Hate: Strippers Fight the Government profiles various body-beautiful men as they protest absurdly restrictive, election-year-motivated Maryland decrees against live "adult entertainment"—even the shorts-on, merely titillative kind. Footsteps in Africa: A Nomadic Journey is a poetical portrait of ancient, rapidly disappearing desert tribal cultures. It makes surprising use of Jimi Hendrix tracks—as well as contemporary music from participants in the Afrocentric Festival of the Desert.
It’s up to you to decide if that last-mentioned survey is more exotic than Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons, which offers exactly what its title promises. After battling long-term historic discrimination in the Church of Latterday Saints, co-director, author, and historian Darius Gray, while facing criticism from the Afrian American community for dealing with it in the first place, offers an onscreen riposte: "I’m not an Uncle Tom. This Gospel is for all people."
Likewise, SFBFF ’08 embraces faith, doubt and criticism on myriad, multinational thematic fronts—a programmatic diversity with enough challenge and adventure for viewers of any ethnic backdrop.
With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.
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